Columnist image
Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter


TORONTO – What a month it has been for the Canadian senior men’s basketball program.

After winning their bid to host one of four FIBA qualifying tournaments in Victoria, B.C. over the summer, they found out who will stand in their way of returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2000 on Wednesday morning.

Reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece, ranked seventh in the world, highlight the competition they’ll face in the six-team winner-take-all tournament, which will take place June 23-28.

Canada (ranked 21st) and Greece will share Group A with China (27th) while Czech Republic (10th), Turkey (15th) and Uruguay (43rd) round out Group B. Only the winner of the tournament will qualify for Tokyo 2020. The rest go home – or, in Canada’s case, stay home – empty-handed.

It’s a tough draw, to be sure. Canada’s path back to the Olympics is not an easy one, regardless of who shows up to play. They’ll need all hands on deck. The cause for optimism is the turnout they could have.

On Tuesday, Denver Nuggets rising star and Kitchener, Ont., native Jamal Murray – arguably Canada’s best NBA player – tweeted his intention to suit up for the national team this summer.

“Playing for my country is always an honour and I want to take the step and leadership role to commit to Canada Basketball this summer,” the 22-year-old guard wrote. “I want to play my part to help push our team into the Olympics and compete at the highest world stage. Let’s go Canada.”

Just a few hours later, Oklahoma City Thunder guard and Hamilton, ON’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander joined him, followed by his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Then, with the New York Knicks in Toronto on Wednesday and just ahead of his hometown NBA debut, Mississauga, Ont.’s RJ Barrett added his name to the rapidly growing list of participating Canadians.

"One hundred per cent, I definitely plan on playing for my country this summer," said the third-overall pick in last summer's NBA draft. "I'm very proud to say that. I try to play every summer, as much as I can, so I'm 100 per cent planning on playing."

They join Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (Mississauga), Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (Toronto), Orlando Magic big man Khem Birch (Montreal), Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (Montreal), and Raptors two-way forward Oshae Brissett (Mississauga) in publically committing to represent Canada this summer.

Meanwhile, Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph (Pickering, Ont.), Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan (Brampton, Ont.) and Miami Heat centre Kelly Olynyk (Kamloops, B.C.) don’t even have to say the words. You can bet they’ll show up, because they almost always do.

"It's great to see everybody buying in and trying to do something great for our country, trying to get to Tokyo," Barrett said. "I'm very excited."

Their commitment to and public endorsement of a program that has fallen on hard times over the last two decades, and particularly over the last few years, could go a long way.

Canada’s senior men have repeatedly come up short in international competition, most notably at the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City in 2015, when a team filled with NBA talent collapsed in a must-win game against Venezuela, or most recently at the World Cup last summer, with most of their prominent players pulling out last minute.

Of course, there are plenty of fair and valid reasons why a player might decide against playing for their country any given summer. For instance, Murray was nursing an ankle injury last summer, while Barrett hurt his calf. Brooks was recovering from foot surgery, while others – Gilgeous-Alexander among them – opted to sit out and focus on the upcoming NBA season.

That each of Canada’s NBA players – save for Joseph, Birch and Olynyk, who got hurt during an exhibition game – chose not to play during a crucial qualifying window was the imperfect storm. However, like most things in the league, there’s a domino effect. Once the best players take a stand everybody else usually falls in line.

Credit Canada Basketball CEO Glen Grunwald, Canadian senior men’s team GM Rowan Barrett and head coach Nick Nurse for their efforts in recruiting some of the country’s best players. Then, credit the players who have made the early commitment to play, particularly Murray, for setting the tone.

The process started months ago. There’s a reasonable chance this week’s commitments don’t happen if not for Canada raising the money to bid on and ultimately win the right to host one of this summer’s last-chance qualifiers. Even last summer’s high-profile hirings of Grunwald and Nurse sent a message to fans and sponsors: they are serious about winning.

They’re all-in, and they’ve made no secret of it. Even securing these commitments could have and arguably should have been done quietly, to give themselves some room for error from a PR standpoint.

A lot can chance in the seven months between now and June. Players could get hurt; contract disputes or family issues could pop up, among other things. Canada Basketball thought at least a few of its young stars would play last summer and was largely responsible for building the hype going into training camp, before things blew up in their face.

They run the risk of facing similar backlash should players bail like last year, or if things don’t go according to plan, like in 2015. However, this is their chance to capitalize on all the talent, continue to grow the game in the country and ultimately change the narrative that’s defined the program for nearly two decades. They know that and they’re going for it.

Their road will be a difficult one. Fortunately, they’ll be on home soil, potentially feature their most talented roster ever, and because they’re in the same group as Greece they’ll see Antetokounmpo in the preliminary round and won’t have to face him in a do-or-die semifinals or finals game.

It’s probably best to temper your expectations, given the history of the program and what’s still in front of them, but this month has been an important and encouraging step for Canada Basketball.